During one of my favorite moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which has its digital release this Tuesday, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes meeting Fred Rogers for the first time. “He interviewed me,” Ma recalls, “and he put his face about three inches away from my face and said, ‘It’s so nice to see you and to be with you.’ It scared the living daylights out of me.”
That line drew audible laughs from the packed house I saw this film with—partly because of Ma’s spot-on imitation of Rogers’ gentle, unhurried vocal cadence. Like other winsome reflections dotting Morgan Neville’s salutary documentary about the beloved children’s television icon, it offered welcome comic relief during a sentimental tour de force that frequently leaves viewers suspended in that weepy space between wistful nostalgia and guileless inspiration. (If you’re planning to see it, you might want to pack some tissues.)
In context, Ma’s remark is more than just a playful jab at Rogers’ eccentricities. It’s also a muted critique of a hardened culture in which point-blank, unsolicited expressions of love tend to arouse suspicion rather than gratitude. If Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seems like a peculiarly timely film, more than 15 years after Rogers’ death, it’s only because the radical kindness he championed is as timeless—and subversive—as the gospel itself.
Fred Rogers, of course, is a household name to anyone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. For more than three decades, he welcomed children into his unassuming suburban home, cheerily singing, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,” while trading his dress shoes and sport coat for a pair of sneakers and a cozy sweater. For many of us, he was more than just another on-air personality. Animated as any Saturday morning cartoon, Mr. Rogers was one of those rare, “cool” grown-ups who somehow never lost touch with his inner child—a kindly father figure with fun toys, interesting friends, and a boundless reserve of playful affection. Though he loved riding the iconic red trolley with us to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, he was also careful to preserve the boundary between fantasy and real life. He never held back difficult truths about hard subjects like death and divorce, assuring us that we could overcome even the most frightening parts of growing up through the power of kindness and with the help of others. Most importantly of all, he would never, ever part company without reminding us that we had made his day special, “just by being you.”
Sadly, as even his former stage manager admits in the documentary, truly kind people like Mr. Rogers are increasingly difficult to find in television. After all, ours is a moment when prominent media personalities are more likely to be called out on charges of racial bigotry or sexual misconduct than to be held forth as paragons of virtue. Which is why Neville’s film is such a therapeutic balm for our cynical times.
The radical kindness Mr. Rogers championed is as timeless—and subversive—as the gospel itself.
Displaying judicious cinematic restraint, the Oscar-winning documentarian (20 Feet from Stardom) uses thoughtfully curated and deftly edited archival footage to bring Mr. Rogers back to life exactly the way we remember him. But the delightful reveal of this film is that, with the help of plaintively framed first-person interviews with Rogers’ family, friends, co-workers, and admirers, Neville convincingly demonstrates how the man behind the puppets was basically the same wholesome person in private that he was on TV. Sure, we learn a few surprising things we might not have expected—like how he used to assume Lady Elaine’s strident puppet voice at the dinner table when he had something “un-Mister-Rogers-like” to say—but it certainly seems that, Internet rumors notwithstanding, Fred Rogers was a man with very few skeletons in his closet.
At one point, Rogers’ son quips that it could sometimes be difficult growing up with “almost the second Christ” for a dad. Indeed, watching how multitudes of children lined up for blocks just for a chance to meet Mr. Rogers in person, I couldn’t help thinking about the way children and their parents instinctively thronged to Jesus, hoping for his blessing.
While Mr. Rogers himself would have surely decried such a comparison, shot after tear-jerking shot reveals how Mr. Rogers did indeed have a profoundly transformative impact on practically everyone who had the privilege of knowing him—even cynical late-night TV hosts and investigative journalists. Though Mr. Rogers never identified himself as a minister (despite being a Presbyterian clergyman), his sense of vocation was deeply informed by his love for Jesus. “He didn’t wear a collar; he wore a sweater,” pastor and longtime friend George Wirth says. “Fred’s theology was: Love your neighbor. Love yourself.”
That’s almost exactly the way Jesus put it himself when he inextricably linked the command to love God with the command to love one’s neighbor. The Bible says that we are called to love others because God first loved us—while we were still sinners. In Christ, the wholly unmerited love of God bids us to come exactly as we are, without any prerequisites for what we have to do in order to “earn” the right to be called his children. And then, once we accept God’s inscrutably gracious invitation, the Holy Spirit comes alongside us in our spiritual infirmity, helping us grow after Jesus’ example.
If God sacrificially crosses boundaries to love us, then it stands to reason that Christians ought to be willing to step out of their comfort zones to love their neighbors in kind. And who are our neighbors? When an expert in the Law asked Jesus that question, he responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—a marginalized outsider who tenderly cares for someone he wasn’t “supposed” to. It’s hard to imagine a more contemporary manifestation of Good Samaritan kindness than that embodied by Fred Rogers, a quiet radical who, among other things, dipped his feet in a kiddie pool with his African-American neighborhood police chief, Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons), as a symbolic protest against segregated swimming pools. He also responded to the potential scandal of having an openly gay cast member by making sure Clemmons heard from him what he never heard from his own father: “I love you just the way you are.” In these and other ways, Rogers modeled the subversive kindness Jesus had in mind when he said, “Go and do likewise.”
Neville’s touching closing sequence (which I dare not spoil here) honors the spirit of this statement by capping the documentary in a quintessentially “Mr. Rogers” way—not with a congratulatory exclamation point, but with an introspective question mark. And as the credits begin to roll, viewers suddenly realize that the film’s title is also its call to action.